Easter prayer of Iraq’s embattled Christians: ‘give us back our land’

Assyrian Christians in the Nineveh Plains are forming an army to fight for their ancient community against Isis invaders

This article was first published in the Times on 4 April 2015.

As Christians around the world celebrate the most important feast in their liturgical calendar tomorrow and Pope Francis delivers his message of peace, Christian soldiers will be preparing to fight Isis.

In the remaining Christian-held territory in the Ninevah Plains in northern Iraq, many of the newly trained Christian militiamen are volunteers who have arrived to fight for their brethren and try to avoid a repeat of the night of August 6 when 125,000 Christians fled their homes as Islamic State stood poised to invade. That evening, a Kurdish commander warned Christian leaders that his forces were retreating. By morning whole cities and towns, including Bakhdida and Bartella, had been abandoned and Christians evacuated into Kurdish territories in Iraq such as Ankawa, an Assyrian Christian suburb of the city of Arbil, and the city of Dohuk, where there is also a big Assyrian population.

Staying in their homes would have entailed either converting to Islam, paying extortion money or being murdered. In the Isis-controlled city of Mosul, some 30 miles away, many Christians had already fled in June 2014 after Isis took over. Churches were burnt, statues destroyed, and the Arabic letter for “N” (“Nazarene”) was daubed on the doors of Christian properties.

In the past decade Iraqi Christians have suffered a series of atrocities perpetrated by Sunni and Shia extremists. These attacks have driven most Christians out of the country. In 2003 there were 1.2 million in Iraq; now there are thought to be about 300,000. Many of those displaced say that Christianity in Iraq is finished. If so, this would bring an end to a rich heritage; Christians have been established in the area since the second century AD.

One group of Christians, however, would rather fight than leave — and has started to build its own army. The Assyrians, a distinct ethnic group, have set up a force called the Nineveh Plains protection units. Their aim is to defend the towns and villages they still have and eventually push Isis out of their homeland.

A fundraising appeal has been launched and supporters are mostly drawn from a worldwide Assyrian diaspora of two or three million. The money will fund equipment and training for 3,000 or so volunteers. The militia already has weapons inherited from an insurgency against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and the organisers say that more than £150,000 has been raised in the past three months. The appeal’s website, restoreninevehnow.org, argues that Assyrians can no longer rely on the Kurds or the Iraqi army to protect them. In the face of Isis, both forces withdrew, leaving Assyrians “with no choice but to flee for their lives”.

A private company of American military veterans has so far trained 500 soldiers. Athra Kado, 25, is one of them. Last August he was employed as a youth worker in Germany. Once he learnt that his family had fled their home he returned to Iraq and volunteered to fight. He argues that a militia is the only choice if Assyrians want to stay in Iraq. “Nobody is helping us,” he says. “The whole world is watching and they are not doing anything.”

Its soldiers patrol the Assyrian Christian town of Alqosh and the village of Sharafiya, less than an hour’s drive from Isis-controlled areas farther south. Two smaller Assyrian militias, working under Kurdish command, are present in the area too. It is hoped that, with the creation of the militias, the Iraqi government will step in and provide funding and equipment.

John Michael, a British-Assyrian who runs an IT company in Ealing, west London, is a supporter of the militia. He is passionate about his people’s history — a collection of artefacts in his office includes a 400-year-old Bible and a statue of Ashur, an ancient Assyrian god. (Assyrians follow the Church of the East, which split from the Western churches in the 4th century, but trace their heritage back to the Assyrian empire, dating from about 2,500 BC).

Between the fifth and 13th centuries Europeans did not even know the Church of the East existed. The church developed independently under a succession of Islamic and Mongol empires. Its liturgy, though composed of the same basic steps, differs significantly from that of Western churches.

“Since the seventh-century AD our people have suffered one massacre after another,” says Michael. The 20th century was particularly deadly, with an estimated half a million killed in the Armenian genocide in 1915 and another 5,000 or so slaughtered by the Iraqi military in 1933. Yet the West pays little attention, he says.

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